Alice Neel (1900-1984)
signed and dated 'NEEL '62' (lower right)
oil on canvas
42 x 24 in. (106.7 x 70 cm.)
Painted in 1962.
Richard and Alice Neel, New York.
Robert Miller Gallery, New York.
Acquired from the above by the late owner.
THE COLLECTION OF ALICE LAWRENCE
Athens, University of Georgia, Georgia Museum of Art, Alice Neel: The Woman and Her Work, September-October 1975, no. 34.
Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus Art Gallery, Three Contemporary American Women Realists, December-January 1978.
University of Bridgeport, Carlson Gallery and New Canaan, Silvermine Guild of Artists, Alice Neel, February-April 1979.
Boston University Art Gallery, Alice Neel: Paintings of Two Decades, October-November 1980.
New York, Grace Borgenicht Gallery, Twenty Galleries, Twenty Years, January-February 1982.
Los Angeles, Loyola Marymount University Art Gallery, Alice Neel: Paintings 1933-1982, March-May 1983, no. 6.
New York, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, Memorial Exhibition: Alice Neel, November-December 1985.
Greenville County Museum of Art, Just Like a Woman, March-May 1988. New York, Whitney Museum of Art; Andover, Addison Gallery of American Art; Philadelphia Museum of Art and Minneapolis, Walker Art Center, Alice Neel 1900-1984, June 2000-December 2001, p. 124, pl. 44 (illustrated in color).
Between the years 1958 and 1962, Alice Neel began an important series of portraits -- a gallery of paintings that included the most important players of the New York art world. This period revealed a shift in emphasis that coincided with Neel's own greater presence in the New York art scene. She began to broaden her horizons; she had been attending Friday evening panel discussions at the Club (Eighth Street Club or Artist's Club) for the previous five years, but by 1962 she had become more involved, even taking part in the seminal underground film Pull my Daisy (1959-1960), that was produced and directed by the photographer Robert Frank and the painter Alfred Leslie and narrated by Jack Kerouac.
In 1962 an important article appeared on the artist in the October issue of ARTNews, and her work was featured in the May 1962 show "Recent Painting USA: The Figure" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Just as Neel exploded onto the scene, she expanded her role of portraits to include a wide array of artist-dealer- and critic-celebrities, including the art critic Henry Geldzahler, feminist art historian Linda Nochlin and artist Andy Warhol.
Neel's portrait of Robert Smithson is an outstanding example for this period; while the painting follows Neel's typical portrait format, the layers of heavy impasto and the building up of the rich pigments of greens, plums and notes of blue sets it apart from others of the period. Neel captures Smithson in profile, a relatively rare portrait stance that illustrates Smithson's ruddy, rough-skinned appearance (fig. 1). Virtually unknown at the time of the work's execution, Smithson would later go on to become a founding member of the Earth Art movement, achieving fame for his minimal sculpture and Spiral Jetty of 1970.
In creating portraits during this era, Neel set herself apart from the Abstract Expressionist and Color Field artists who were in favor and boldly established herself as one of the best artists of the 20th Century. Robert Smithson is arguably one of Neel's best portraits of this era. The complexity of the picture's surface, its expressive brushwork and rich coloration recall the best portraits of Vincent van Gogh (fig. 2) and the German Expressionists, artists whose work Neel greatly admired. With Robert Smithson Neel's portrait style is at its best - the work demonstrates the remarkable psychological intensity synonymous with Smithson's brooding artistic persona.